It used to be that kids couldn't get enough baseball. They'd get up early on mornings when school was out, assemble teams that would converge on the nearest neutral territory to play sandlot ball until the sun fell behind the horizon. They signed up for Little League, listened to games on the radio, traded cards and basically lived for the national pastime.
Those were the days.
"When I was a kid, my mom used to bring me lunch at the baseball field because I wouldn't come home. Now you ride by and they're empty," said Michael Haspert, an administrator for Little League Baseball in Maryland.
Like other grown-up baseball-mad kids, Haspert ruefully watches as the game that consumed his childhood summers increasingly loses its hold on many of today's youngsters.
As youth league baseball goes into full swing this month, programs that once had more than enough players to divide into teams are seeing significant declines in sign-ups.
Maryland is fielding fewer and fewer Little League teams. Three years ago, 2,003 teams competed. That dropped to 1,721 last year. Nationally, Little League is down 300,000 players from its peak of 3 million in 1996, the organization said.
It's even worse for other leagues. Howard County's Columbia Youth Baseball Association has seen participation drop 40 percent over the past seven years.
Seeking faster pace
Baseball's appeal to kids has been on the wane for some time, with notable exceptions such as the Babe Ruth League's revamped under-12 division, named after Oriole great Cal Ripken, who hosts its World Series in his hometown, Aberdeen.
But increasingly, the leisurely national pastime is less attractive to kids who instead are drawn to faster-paced games, whether on their Xboxes or their playing fields.
"I don't like baseball," said Daniel Smith, 9, of Middle River, "because I don't like the fact that you can't make contact with people and there's too much standing around. I like to run a lot."
Gone are the days when kids spent unlimited time on their own, initiating their own fun. Today, their parents have greater concern for their whereabouts and prefer more tightly scheduled activities.
Additionally, the vast, open spaces that once might have attracted impromptu games have been developed, with remaining fields monopolized by organized programs.
"We all get nostalgic about the good old days of kids participating in neighborhood games, calling buddies and saying, `Meet me at the field,'" said Robert Faherty, commissioner of the Trenton, N.J.-based Babe Ruth League. "Now, if adults see nine kids running on a field, they call them a gang, and someone's going to tell them, `I'm not insured to have you on that field.'"
Baseball was once king, but kids now have a wide variety of sports to chose from, as well as newer activities such as skateboarding and paintball.
"When I was growing up, we didn't have hockey, and now both of my kids play hockey; they play in-line roller hockey and ice hockey," said Craig Schwartz of Roland Park, a former Little Leaguer.
Keene Gooding Jr., chief of recreation services for Baltimore County's Department of Recreation and Parks, sees a correlation between the drop in baseball participation and the increase in lacrosse programs.
"When you compare the actual conduct of a baseball game, particularly in the younger age group, primarily the action takes place between just a few players: the pitcher, the catcher, maybe the first baseman and one other player," he said.
"However, in a typical lacrosse or soccer game, everyone at some point in time will have had several opportunities to touch the ball," he said.
TV and the Net
In addition to choosing from more outdoor activities, kids have more reasons to stay indoors: television (now with 24-hour children's cable networks), video games, the Internet and arcades.
For many communities, baseball is a diversion for people of all ages and a way to keep kids off the streets. Losing that, said Dave Eisenhardt, president of South Baltimore Little League, has an impact beyond the diamond.
"For most of these kids in the city, if there isn't something for them to do, they'll find something to do, and most of the time what they find to do, it's not always criminal, but it's a lot of aggravation to the people in the neighborhood they're running around in," he said.
Ten years ago, the South Baltimore league drew 300 kids a year. Now, it draws about 230.
Joe Shaffer of Baltimore takes pride in his son, Joey, who plays, as his father did, in the South Baltimore league. But the Clarkson Street resident also remembers how he used to round up friends to play nonleague games against kids from Locust Point and Light Street.
"You don't see that anymore," he said. "Kids are playing video games, and some just hang out on the streets."
"I still love the game, but there's not enough emphasis on it, especially in the inner city," said Wallace Bigelow of Baltimore while watching son Nikolas participate in South Baltimore Little League practice on a recent afternoon.